by Ian McCall

Chapter 42 - TIME NO DEY

The trouble with colonial administrations is that they think their way is the only one. Imperialism drew for its strength on the arrogance, confidence and self-reliance with which most of its builders and enforcers were well endowed. That they also had a civilising role in their perception provided moral support for their attitudes. That these traits should be reinforced by a belief in the inherent goodness of their motives, and legitimated by the Christian religion which put them on the side of the angels, gave them no reason to question their actions. Muscular Christianity was the accepted model. That view of the way things are constituted clashes with local customs and practices and the hidden assumptions people make. Not that colonialists are the only people who do this; they are just the prime example of not seeing there are other ways of doing and thinking. Plenty of others see the world through the lens of their own culture. We are all prone to it. We only rarely see ourselves as others see us; there is the corollary too that we rarely see others as they see themselves.

This homily is exemplified by an experience I had on the road from Akure to Okitipupa. I was driving along and saw approaching an open-sided, passenger - carrying bus, sometimes called a ‘mammy wagon’, when from behind the lorry and going across the road in front of me rode a man on a bicycle with a young boy on a carrier over the back wheel. The man was looking behind him with the back of his head facing the oncoming traffic. Instinctively I braked hard and pulled to a stop inches from the bicycle, my heart pounding fit to burst. My initial reaction was to ask him what the hell he was doing.
‘Why you done do dis stupid ting?’ I cried, ‘You never see what come from Akure?’
‘Why you holler?’ he said, ‘I was speaking to my friend’.
His values were different from mine and he was ready to defend them. Relationships are important in Nigeria as in the rest of West Africa and awareness of them is in some circumstances more acute than that of imminent immolation.

Nowhere do these differences create more problems between people of different national backgrounds than in their relationship to time. In Nigeria, the sun, the moon and the stars marked the meaningful divisions of life for the majority of people. It created a circularity which was predictable and repeatable. It meant that such importations as submitting returns in time and turning up for meetings at a given hour or making payment by a given date were carried out with a considerable exercise of will and against a counterflow born of custom. Nevertheless such unaccustomed practice was perceived to be the way forward for many indigenous power holders whether in business or in the public service. When a cross-departmental team showed the producers of palm oil in Ughelli how to make the highest quality edible oil in a dugout canoe as their protection against the future removal of lower grades due to the arrival of substitutes for technical palm oil of a lower grade, the people to whom the team were giving their demonstration expressed their thanks with natural Urhobo politeness. On the team`s return to Ughelli some months later, the producers were seen to have reverted to the old ways. When asked to explain they simply said ‘Na so we used to do am’ (That is our custom). They would then receive a lecture to the effect that the old idea of ‘time no dey’ (time is not important) no longer had a place in Nigerian life. New ideas had to be adapted to within a time scale laid down by the authorities or the traditional social life they and their forefathers had enjoyed would break down.

Similar exhortations were made among cocoa growers - Tètè ja kórikóri tàbi àdùm (Yoruba for ‘cut out black pod early’) was an injunction frequently given, the implication being it was a function not always carried out at the optimum time but when the farmers had time to spare from other duties. They were reluctant too to bury the pods that had contained the cocoa beans after harvesting. This was a necessary precaution as these could harbour disease not yet evident and so adversely affect future crops. Black pod was particularly prone to manifest itself in this way. Some had heard that there was a possible market for processed pods in the making of respirators for military and civil purposes and didn`t want to lose out on any opportunity that arose by holding on to their old pods. Rubber producers were urged to coagulate the latex tapped from the trees with the stipulated coagulant, dilute formic acid, rather than by the natural way (meaning not to be coagulated with human urine, this being a practice carried out to save time and money and observed, or rather, smelt, during the period of pressure of demand and high rubber prices on the world markets at the time of the Korean war). In this connection it was remarkable how many rubber buyers became avid readers of the airmail edition of The Times because it gave the latest commodity prices. The fear was that an export duty promised when the price of rubber reached a certain threshold at one time believed impossible, would automatically be imposed.

One of my most difficult prosecutions involved the employees of a prominent politician, Chief F S Ekotie-Eboh, only a few months previously guest at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth 11 and conspicuous on that occasion by his colourful dress which included a straw hat, a long train and a boa. Just when the threshold attracting an export tax appeared imminent, his company shipped a large consignment of rubber, presumably in order to beat the possible incidence of the tax, without its being passed by the government inspectors. Part of the consignment bore false seals purporting to show that it had received official inspection. It involved having 100 tons of rubber removed in an all-night operation in Sapele from a ship called the Hendon Hall, which had been about to sail, and examining every single bale to sort out the bales concerned and detain them as exhibits. As with Chief Nana Olomu, contemporary of King Jaja, whose place Nana’s Town was just down the Benin River from Sapele where his premises were, Ekotie-Eboh was at one with those economists who wanted the market to rule, as it had in Nigeria in the memory of the elders, unfettered by restrictions except those established by the natural authority. There was a time and place for everything, he believed, and this was not the time and Nigeria not the place. He had further political ambitions, it was said.

Chief Ekotie-Eboh’s actions reflected the structure of society. He would control everything from his own office-cum-court. If you had an appointment with him he would receive you at the appointed hour, or would create time to see you if you called without an appointment, but discussions would be interrupted frequently by the arrival of extended family or employees, who would hold his attention until a particular item of business was concluded when discussions would resume. He carried on multiple conversations at the same time, switching from a mode of thinking with friends and relatives which took no account of time to one with me or other Europeans which accommodated the need to achieve certain actions within a given time scale.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003